I have a confession to make: there was a period of time this past year when I questioned my long-held belief that I was a feminist. It wasn't because I came up with a rationale for the pay wage gap or wanted to revert back to a 1950's domesticity; both of these things were far from the truth. It was because I began to question what feminism as both a sphere of activism and as represented in an academic discipline (a la Women's Studies) could do for trans* people and burgeoning field of Trans* Studies. Many of my concerns regarding the possibility of no longer being able to call myself a feminist revolved around the critical legal scholar Janet Halley's (2006) treatment of what lies at the root of feminism, which I found (and still find) to be highly compelling. In her book Split Decisions: How and Why to Take a Break from Feminism, Halley laid out three points she suggested all feminisms have in common. She described these as:
(1) m / f, or that "to be feminism, first a position must make a distinction between m and f" (p. 17), which she noted could look differently in different feminisms (e.g., male/female, masculine/feminine, man/woman);
(2) m > f, or that "to be a feminism in the United States today, a position must posit some kind of subordination as between m and f, in which f is the disadvantaged and subordinated element" (p. 18); and
(3) feminism carries a brief for f, or as she wrote, "And third (here is the normative turn), feminism opposes the subordination of f" (p. 18).
I think these are fair claims to make about feminisms, and because of this, I became concerned that thinking, theorizing, living beyond, and/or transgressing in any way a binary understanding of m/f, which is very much the realm of trans* people and Trans* Studies as a discipline, meant I may need to, in the words of Halley, Take a Break from Feminism.
After reading Halley's book, and after several ongoing conversations with dear friends who do or have worked in Women's Centers/Women's Studies on college campuses for a bulk of their careers, I was still hesitant. Is feminism for me? For us? Do I need to consider taking a permanent vacation from an epistemology that has given me so much in terms of how to read, see, make sense of, and resist systems of oppression? Was there a middle ground? Or was holding hope for a middle ground just wishful thinking?
Due to my unrest, I purchased an edited volume titled Women's Studies on the Edge. My hope was to gain a critical understanding of Women's Studies as a field of study that could work in collaboration with trans* people, subjectivities, theories, and perspectives. Although I had read several of the chapters previously (most notably Wendy Brown's The Impossibility of Women's Studies, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in challenging the normative assumptions are what it means to create disciplines around "area" studies), my main objective in purchasing the text was for Gayle Salamon's chapter titled Transfeminism and the Future of Gender. It was in this chapter that I was hoping to find some way to reconcile what I had previously held as being at odds with one another (i.e., feminisms and trans* realities). Thankfully, Salamon's work did not disappoint.
In this chapter, Salamon addressed the issue head-on, suggesting in the second sentence, "In asking after the place--or lack of place--of transgender studies within the rubric of women's studies, I want to suggest that feminism, particularly but not exclusively in its institutionalized form, has not been able to keep pace with nonnormative [sic] genders as they are thought, embodied, and lived" (p. 115). She goes on to state emphatically, "Genders beyond the binary of male and female are neither fictive or futural but are embodied and lived" (p. 115). This statement alone is a powerful one to make in the context of feminisms and Women's Studies, as there are some who claim that being trans* is a fiction that is damaging to feminism and womanhood itself. Although this is not a pervasive view held by most feminists, it certainly has a grip on the field, so reading these words from Salamon was terrific. (For more information on the supposed 'harmful effects' of trans* identities on feminisms and 'womanhood,' I would recommend you look into the Butch FTM Borderwars as well as Trans Exclusive Radical Feminism).
Salamon goes on to claim that the major contribution of feminism to Trans* Studies is its ability to account for an historical understanding of the discourses of gender, including how the present state of gender emerged socially. Similarly, feminisms and Women's Studies needs trans* people and Trans* Studies to provide a deeper understanding of just who it is that is affected by gender discourses. This means thinking beyond binary understandings of m/f, or what Halley stated was a hallmark of historical underpinnings of feminisms.
The remainder of Salamon's chapter was a critical analysis of several depictions of trans* people via a dismissive New York Times article and a series of photographs. What is important about these sites of analysis, and what shines through, is Salamon's questioning the link between certain bodies, specifically those bodies with breasts, with certain identifications, specifically 'woman.' By doing so, Salamon raised important concerns about how femininity is read on the body in ways it very much shouldn't be. This is a similar analysis to the one written by C.J. Pascoe (2007) in Dude You're a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, where Pascoe suggested that masculinity and bodies should not be seen as tethered together. It is also similar to Halberstam's (1998) analysis in Female Masculinity, which Salamon cited.
All things tolled, I was relieved to find some connections between feminisms and trans* subjectivities. It is true that they two are not the same, nor do I hold the opinion that there is heavy overlap between the two all the time. However, I do love Salamon's language of their both being able to offer the other something important. These offerings, and wrestling with the tensions and confluences between and among the fields of study/lived realities has helped me gain a new perspective on how coalition-building may be able to take place not just on the individual level, but on the disciplinary level as well.
And, at the end of the day, I am happy to be able to call myself a trans*feminist.
This blog is a space where I share my thoughts on trans*-related issues. I also will share my own research as it develops, including papers, presentations, and the development of my dissertation study with trans* college students.